On Wednesday morning, NBC confirmed that they had fired morning news anchor Matt Lauer. Lauer has served as the centerpiece of Today, which The New York Times calls “the most important part of the NBC News franchise,” since 1997. A memo from NBC News chairman Andy Lack cited “inappropriate sexual behavior” as the grounds for termination.
“On Monday night,” Lack wrote, “We received a detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace by Matt Lauer. It represented, after serious review, a clear violation of our company’s standards.”
While NBC took swift action against Lauer even before the allegations went public, it’s safe to assume that this story is far from over. As Lack himself acknowledged, “While it is the first complaint about his behavior in the over twenty years he’s been at NBC News, we were also presented with reason to believe this may not have been an isolated incident.”
In the wake of Lauer’s unexpected departure, Today was forced to reckon with the story in real time. Lauer’s co-host Savannah Guthrie was tasked with reporting on the latest in a string of sexual misconduct stories, this time involving her “dear, dear friend” and colleague. “How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?” an emotional Guthrie asked. “All we can say is we are heartbroken; I’m heartbroken.”
As charges and accusations against powerful men continue to stack up, we’ve established an informal mass protocol for dealing with these outings. Immediately following any allegation, the first reaction—after expressing shock or, if you’re a woman, expressing shock that anyone is still shocked—is to comb through said man’s past work in light of new revelations. For example, the “feminist” comic Louis C.K.’s work, which has long focused on male violence and sexual neuroses, is downright sinister now that he’s admitted to sexually harassing women. In one newly infamous special, C.K. joked that, “there is no greater threat to women than men,” adding, “We’re the number one threat to women. Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. We’re the worst thing that ever happens to them.”
Like the other recently disgraced media men before him, Lauer’s career is now open for reexamination. One incident that’s already been circulated and picked apart by social media is the Presidential Forum that Lauer moderated in September 2016. At the time, Lauer was widely criticized for the way he interacted with candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, with many accusing the Today host of employing a sexist double standard. In one article, “How Sexism, Like Matt Lauer’s, Could Imperil the Nation,” Adele M. Stan wrote, “When questioning Clinton, Lauer was all alpha-male, interrupting her and tsk-tsking her for criticizing her opponent after he had asked her not to do so. But when paired with Trump, it became clear who was the alpha in that set-up. It clearly wasn't Lauer, who allowed Trump to talk over him, and to evade specifics.”
While Lauer’s tendency to interrupt Clinton repeatedly—while letting Trump go largely unchallenged—was certainly cringe-worthy, it may not be Lauer’s most painful on-air interaction. Anyone searching for an example of overt sexism need look no further than his 2012 Today interview with Anne Hathaway. The actress, who was promoting her film Les Miserables at the time, had had the misfortune of being photographed during a “wardrobe malfunction.” “I was getting out of the car and my dress was so tight that I didn’t realize it until I saw all the photographers’ flashes,” she reportedly said in response to the “devastating” incident. As if the revealing photographs weren’t enough, Hathaway was then grilled on the minor controversy by Lauer, who opened the interview with a gross allusion to the intimate pics.
“Anne Hathaway, good morning, nice to see you. Seen a lot of you lately,” Lauer greeted his guest. While Hathaway, who responded that, “I’d be happy to stay home,” clearly had no interest in discussing the upskirt shots, Lauer continued. “Let’s just get it out of the way. You had a little wardrobe malfunction the other night. What’s the lesson learned from something like that, other than that you keep smiling, which you’ll always do.” To summarize: Lauer, mistaking pervy paparazzi pics for actual news, asked an accomplished actress about a painful incident, phrasing the invasion of privacy as a personal failing (“what’s the lesson learned from something like that?”). To make matters even worse, he all but told Hathaway to smile through it—which is just what every woman wants to hear from a man who’s talking down to her about her lack of underwear on national television.
Hathaway, to her credit, managed to own Lauer, replying, “Well, it was obviously an unfortunate incident. It kind of made me sad on two accounts. One was that I was very sad that we live in an age when someone takes a picture of another person in a vulnerable moment, and rather than delete it and do the decent thing, sells it. And I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants, which brings us back to Les Mis, because that’s what the character [Fantine] is. She is someone who is forced to sell sex to benefit her child because she has nothing and there’s no social safety net so yeah—let’s get back to Les Mis.”
This answer makes me sad that actresses have to issue polite and eloquent responses to lascivious lines of questioning, because people don’t like it when women tell their interviewers to fuck off. While this interaction is hardly pertinent to the misconduct complaint against Lauer, it comes across as even ickier knowing what we know now.